The Eastern Squadron
Commo. George Dewey’s spectacular success sinking the Spanish fleet in the Philippines on 1 May 1898, was an incredible victory, but it presented considerable complications for the Navy Department. The United States held a preponderance of force in the Caribbean, but the Spanish Navy in Europe far surpassed Dewey’s squadron and reports from Spain indicated the Spanish Navy was forming a squadron to retake the Philippines. The only way to reinforce Dewey with comparable numbers would be to draw forces from the Caribbean and either steam around South America, a journey that took the battle-ship Oregon more than two months, or to cross the Atlantic and pursue the Spanish squadron through the Mediterranean Sea and Suez Canal. When Vice Adm. Manuel de la Cámara y Libermoore set out with a squadron for Manila on 16 June, the Navy Department elected for the latter.
Through spies in Spain the Navy learned on 17 June of Camara’s departure from Cadiz. The Admiral commanded the battleship Pelayo, armored cruiser Carlos V, the auxiliary cruisers Patriota and Rápido, and the destroyers Audaz, Prosepina, and Osado. Attached were 4,000 troops in two transports and four escort colliers. Camara’s mission was to retake a portion of the Philippine Island or, if he could “avoid manifestly unfavorable encounters,” to attempt to retake Manila. Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, informed the State Department of Camara’s departure and requested that:
. . .the Department of State will instruct its agents, throughout the route to the East, via Suez, to throw every possible impediment in the way of coal and other necessaries being supplied to the squadron.
Long also hurried the dispatch of the monitors Monterey and Monadnock to reinforce Dewey, but the slow moving and precarious ships were little guarantee of success against Camara’s squadron.
The Navy Department formulated a contingency plan, an Eastern Squadron, with the express purpose of intimidating the Spanish by threating to attack the Spanish coast and pursing the Camara’s Squadron. Long issued instructions to commander of the North Atlantic Fleet, RAdm. William T. Sampson, to prepare the armored vessels Brooklyn, Iowa, and Oregon, along with several auxiliary cruisers, to attack Spain if Camara passed through the Suez.
At the time, most of the Navy’s capital ships were blockading the Spanish squadron at Santiago de Cuba, and would remain their till that squadron was capture or destroyed, so the Department emphasized the formation of the Eastern Squadron in the press, in hope of intimidating the Spanish with the threat of an American attack on their shores. Commo. John C. Watson, then in command of the First Blockading Squadron in Northern Cuba, was selected to take charge of the Eastern Squadron. Long ordered Watson to Santiago on 25 June and the very next day word reach the Department that Camara was at Port Said, Egypt, just outside the Suez Canal.
While Long hoped to launch the Eastern Squadron before July, Sampson was already spread thin. The North Atlantic Fleet was blockading both the Northern and Southern coasts of Cuba, his auxiliaries were being used to convoy Army landings, and Cervera’s four cruisers and two torpedo-destroyers might attempt to flee Santiago at any moment. Sampson needed his capital ships to guarantee Cervera’s destruction and, he believed, end the war. Regardless of Long’s orders, or Dewey’s distant needs, the Eastern Squadron was unlikely to launch until Cervera’s squadron no longer posed a threat.
On 3 July, Cervera attempted to flee Santiago and all of his ships were destroyed by Sampson’s waiting blockade. Long wasted little time and issued instructions that the Eastern Squadron should fully arm itself and form off St. Nicholas Mole. Watson met his new Squadron on 10 July, at Guantanamo and transferred his flag to battleship Oregon and appointed the vessels commanding officer, Capt. Charles E. Clark, his Chief of Staff. That same day Sampson informed Long that the Eastern Squadron could sail in a matter of days, but circumstances had already changed.
Long relayed word that Camara had turn around on 9 July. Dewey was no longer in danger, but Camara’s retreat demonstrated to the Naval War Board that threat of an attack on Spain might offer just the right pressure to force Spain to concede. Sampson was ordered on 11 July, to prepare all of his armored vessels, save monitors to steam for Europe. The new plan called for two squadrons. The first, Eastern Squadron, would be commanded by Watson and would head directly through the Mediterranean to reinforce Dewey. The Second, Covering Squadron, commanded by Sampson, was to blockade the Spanish Navy in port while Watson made his run East. The War Board considered sending Watson alone, but decided that the possibility for losses, no matter how small, hardly merited the risk.
Intelligence reports of Spanish colonial possessions in North Africa and Spanish coastal cities poured in from the naval attaché in Paris, Lt. William S. Sims and Sampson had his staff prepare cruising orders. The prospect of American attack, after the Spanish Navy suffered two catastrophic defeats created widespread fear in Spanish ports.
In the Caribbean the addition of the Covering Squadron, and word of likely Spanish capitulation, delayed the combined fleets departure. Sampson was hesitant to take his armored ships, fouled by months of operating without break in the Caribbean, to Spain. Chief Engineer Cipriano Andrade informed Sampson of a laundry list of problems and that New York, Texas and Iowa all needed at least a week of overhaul. To speed the Eastern Squadron departure Sampson, with Watson’s blessing, instead suggested that Watson’s force be increased with the additions of Brooklyn and New Orleans.
Before the squadron could depart and its mission clarified, peace negotiations with Spain began and the Navy Department suspended orders to send the fleet to Spain. The matter was resolved on 12 August, with the conclusion of Peace Protocols between the United States and Spain. The major armored ships comprising the Eastern Squadron were drawn off to the East Coast where they were repaired and participated in naval parades celebrating the peace. What remained of the Eastern Squadron was officially dissolved on 19 September, its ships re-joining the North Atlantic Fleet.